Contemporary poetry is often autobiography by other means. Few poets, after all, write much about personages mythical, famous or fictitious any more; usually their poems are about themselves and the people they know, and when nature or current events come up it’s typically a way to let you see the world more clearly through the poet’s own eyes.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that such poems want for ambition, scope or insight into the larger world; it probably helps keep a lid on pretense. Still, if we’re spending a whole collection with the First Person who wrote it, there’d better be more than dead relatives and beautifully haunting memories.
Two new collections, both from Pittsburgh-based Autumn House Press, find established area poets Philip Terman and Ed Ochester in distinctive ways taking stock of life and admitting, even celebrating, what they don’t know. Both prove good company.
Terman gives his Rabbis of the Air an epigram from Apocrypha: The Wisdom of Solomon, reading in part: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered.” It’s a fair summation for a poet so deeply concerned with mortality and posterity. In Rabbis, his third book, Terman characteristically writes as a descendant or a parent — as a son or a grandson, or about his daughters. The dead are nearly as populous as the quick, “their names the undertone whenever / my own name is called.” Often the poet seeks transcendence, or joy unalloyed; nearly as often he catches himself, drawing back to recall loss in the midst of plenty, the bud withered.
Frequently Terman writes as a Jew, an observant one, but not so reverent that in “My Father’s Kaddish” he can’t cheekily compare the old man to Jesus. Much of the imagery derives from the Clarion University English professor’s life in rural Venango County, where woods and fields, the wildlife and a vegetable garden inspire his lyrics to literally lip-smacking lushness:
The demonstrations of the ineffable —
The robin’s gorging in the blueberry bush,
The hummingbird’s delicate visitation of the lilac,
The rain’s every-so-often downpour,
Then its slowly reminiscing.
Even here, in “The Betrayal,” which begins by celebrating “the summer of our content,” Terman finds deception: “this false foretaste of paradise.” Likewise, in the small epic “Days of Longing,” a happy family moment is introduced as already doomed to lost memory, both for “my daughter as she shapes into her life, / and me as I unshape into my death.” A frequent image is that of birds and their ever-urgent need for sustenance — “the suffering for more seed,” an exigency whose fulfillment can ever be only temporary.
Yet such discoveries seem not morose, but rather a cause for joy in the moment: sweetnesses recalled by the poet as July’s blueberries, frozen then thawed in mid-winter — which nevertheless lead him to wonder whether he and his wife, there stirring the sauce, will “bear / witness to whatever / becomes of our ripenings.”
Terman’s thoughts of mortality have a flip side in occasional sentimentality, such as the paternal satisfaction of “Is there anything more remarkable / than holding your child as she falls asleep?” Yet as often as not he passes from plain sentiment into psalmic bliss: “Their beauty is a dream vanishing, / a brush stroke across their thick black hair.”
Compare Rabbis of the Air to Terman’s first book, 1998’s The House of Sages, and you might feel he’s found a niche. The themes and settings are fewer but more intensely explored. The poems, good then, feel richer now.
Like Terman, Ed Ochester — a Pitt professor emeritus and founder of the venerable Pitt Poetry Series — lives these days in rural Western Pennsylvania (Armstrong County) and sometimes writes about gardens. But the two will never be confused, and not just because Ochester seldom gets within shouting distance of sentimentality. Where Terman is formal, even grandiloquent, Ochester is characteristically casual — a verse raconteur whose digressions, broadsides and glee in momentary obsessions can even seem offhanded.
But don’t be fooled, not even by the fact that Ochester is among the funniest poets around: “in every dead / tree there was an owl, hundreds of them, / stupid in the light, like a faculty senate.” In Unreconstructed, poems old (culled from four books) and new (21 of them) typically show Ochester following a thread of thought from a frayed end to one sharply scissored. New poems about watching Roseanne Barr’s talk show with his elderly mother, and observing a comically vulgar family at the beach, are both accessible and slyly insightful.
Ochester can be garrulously contrary. First he tells you poetry doesn’t matter — one poem finds him happily drinking beer and playing volleyball in Frick Park instead of reading poems at an activists’ picnic — then, elsewhere, he tells you it’s about all that matters (“Poem for Basho”).
But here, too, is autobiography: The thinking on the page intimately sketches the shape of a life. Ochester’s narrators include a young newspaper reporter in 1962; an academic satirizing faculty politics; a social commentator outraged (“When the Dow Jones Industrial Average Hit Its All-Time High in 1966”) or bemused (“After Advertising Ended”). Indeed, his sense of social justice is more explicit more often, and more inventively, than is common among contemporary poets: a piss-take on Disneyified history; a poem comparing Christian proselytizers to flesh-eating zombies; and the splendid “Bertolt Brecht: On the Infanticide, Marie Farrar,” an embittered lyric after the German master. But there are also poignantly funny sketches of co-workers from long-ago jobs, and life moments captured in so many emotional and intellectual facets (“After the Summer Party”) that we feel we’ve lived them.
Poets’ lives as understood through their verse are not complete records, of course. But good poems don’t lie, at least about their poets, and a good collection will probably tell you as much about the poet as any biography, in a fraction of the time.
Ed Ochester and Philip Terman read 7:30 p.m. Thu., Aug. 9. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600